He was worn down.
The thought came into Watson’s head unbidden, automatic. Like an old, near forgot companion. The moment bony arms wrapped about his shoulders, draping and clasping and holding tight, there too was the inevitable concern, the inevitable feel of ribs scraping his watch chain, of a heartbeat fluttering and thudding against his ear.
Holmes had always been strangely fragile of health, one moment robust, the next brittle. All the years he had known him, from their first acquaintance to—
Watson’s fingers found the edge of the blanket where it was drawn up to his friend’s chest, his palm ghosting across fabric, bathed by the warmth beneath. The chest that rose and fell, then rose and fell, like water over rocks, steady and constant and loud in the otherwise familiar stillness of his consulting room of a late afternoon.
Holmes had always been thin, but lithe with it, whether bursting with energy or languid with lethargy. Every movement controlled; every thought planned. Poise, grace, intelligence, bright, bright, light.
That was Sherlock Holmes, whether catching a killer or leaping over their sofa. Bright and magnetic and alive.
For John Watson, that would always be Sherlock Holmes.
Watson’s hands fumbled for a match, the catch of his cigarette end seeming to echo like the report of a rifle in the quiet. Holmes did not so much as stir.
Watson dragged in a breath, acrid smoke burning his eyes until moisture spilled and dripped down his cheeks.
The roar of the Reichenbach falls was the stuff of myth and legend, both locally and abroad. But all Watson remembers of that place, all he can ever recall, is a strange, muffled silence.
The silence that comes after a shout into the din. A shout that was never answered.
Watson presses his shaking palm to his companion’s breast, his breath catching and holding until his lungs burn.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Watson is prepared to swear, in all the years that come after, that that slow, steady heartbeat echoing beneath his palm, will forever remain the most beautiful sound he has ever heard.
When the champagne has been drunk, the airgun discarded, the Fez doffed, stories told and laughter shared and tears brushed away, when night comes to Baker Street once more, Sherlock Holmes does something he never has before, to either of his friends’ recollections.
He falls asleep on the sofa.
Watson had seen Holmes fall asleep before, on numerous occasions. For a man whose brain never seemed to allow him a moment’s rest, a moment’s peace, his friend had always possessed a remarkable ability to drop off wherever he happened to be.
Draping his long frame across tree limbs and stone walls, folding his limbs into train benches and cab boxes, his hair flopping across his forehead, his lids already drooping before he even seemed to cease to move.
Watson has seen Holmes fall asleep. But until this moment, as he watches his friend’s breathing slow, watches as every muscle seems to unwind and still, he realizes he has never seen him allow himself to rest.
There was no blanket to be had in the sitting room of 221B, not that morning. Watson shucks off his jacket with barely a thought spared, smoothing the grey fabric over Holmes’ shoulders, tucking the collar about his chin.
Thin fingers wrap about his wrist, the skin almost translucent, so thin are they. But the grip is as nimble and sure as it ever was.
Grey eyes slit in the weak shine of a London winter sun; the lids heavy with an exhaustion Watson could swear he feels a sympathy for in his very bones.
What was three years in his head, was an eternity in his heart.
“Watson … can it really be that you’re here?” The words were a mere whisper, the far off sounds of Mrs. Hudson going about her day fading along with the perpetual noise of the city all about them, as Watson’s breath caught in his throat, his knees buckling in on themselves.
He fetches up against the base of the sofa, idly wondering when Mycroft had it moved. And why.
Holmes’ pulse is rabbit fast where his fingers are still wrapped about a bony, protruding wrist.
“Your cuffs are far too short.” Grey eyes fill with wonder, a spark of something too quicksilver for Watson to catch flitting across his companion’s gaze. A twitch of a mouth was his brain’s reward for its slowness, “Yes, evidently even my brother’s omnipotence has its limitations.”
It should have drawn a laugh, that. In the days of old, in these rooms of theirs, it would.
But now, with three years of time and pain between them, all Watson can feel is numb.
For the words are high and loud and fast, like the rapport of a gun. Or a rifle.
Watson swallowed, the muscles in his shoulders twitching with the effort not to look behind him, to what he knows still lays upon Holmes’ desk.
“Holmes—” The grip on his wrist tightened suddenly, eyes flying wide and muscles tensing.
“Watson?” It’s breathless and panicked, like a word long swallowed suddenly bursting forth.
Watson’s heart lurched, just as it had all those years and miles ago, calling desperately into oblivion. He sometimes thinks his heart stopped, that day. That his body simply forgot to follow his spirit over those Falls, forgot to die as well that day, along with his heart.
Watson shifted his wrist around, his fingers grasping gently yet firmly, grasping and holding.
He meets the eyes of the best and wisest man he has ever known, eyes that are misted with tears that match those trickling down his own cheeks.
Beneath his fingers, a pulse beats steady and clear and alive.
“I’m here, Holmes, this is real. I’m, you’re, we’re really here.”
The sofa is an awkward height for such things, the floor hard and the cushions threadbare and flat, but somehow, they move as one, drawing together in the same instant, as if in a dance choreographed years prior.
Watson presses his forehead to Holmes’; Holmes presses his forehead to Watson’s.
And together, they finally, truly, begin to breath again.